Monte Cristo Directissimo- The Mountains Are Mirrors

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My head spins with irrational fear. The weight of past mistakes, falls onto my shoulders, collapsing my core. I feel vulnerable, scared, but I'm lying safely in my bed, tucked under my down-comforter as my fiancee changes out of his work clothes before crawling in beside me. He's suggested our route for tomorrow: Monte Cristo Directissimo. In Andrew McClean's The Chuting Gallery: A Guide to Steep Skiing in the Wasatch Mountains, he cautions against getting stuck on this route too late in the day, as warming can cause wet-slides which could quickly turn a skier into a "corpsicle." We'd made that mistake just a year before, narrowly avoiding such a dreadful fate, and the thought of choosing to return, was daunting.

Sweet Dreams

I slept surprisingly well that night, albeit only for 5 short hours. Sometimes I feel that my dad visits in my dreams. I think he came to see me that night to remind me that these experiences are what life is about. Have many of them, as many as possible. And he's right. You can be safe, you can calculate your every move, and you could still be gone tomorrow, without ever having left the house.

My mind seemed to settle at rest, to sort out fact from fiction (or fear). The day would be cool, not likely to be above freezing until noon and there should be some cloud cover for most of the day. Last year we were inexperienced, and naive to dangers outside of a typical slab avalanche. Wet slides caught us off-guard, but we've learned so much since then. We know our route, are aware of the snow conditions, and have the proper gear. Not to mention, my lungs are screaming for some extra blood flow and my legs feel strong and ready for use.

So, I rolled out of bed to get ready for our day. My morning routine can't be altered even if I have to leave the house before dawn. Breakfast- a balance of carbs and protein, coffee, with a little cream, and a LOT of water before piling into the car. I used to strongly dislike the drive from Park City to LCC, but now I embrace it. I know that I'll feel good once my ski boots are on and I start the ascent.

Panorama of Alta & Snowbird across from Mt. Superior.

The Approach

The sun was beginning to rise when finally got our skins on and started our approach. There were about 10 other skiers on similar programs that morning, but we all found our own rhythm and naturally spaced out. As we worked our way up to the south edge of Toledo Bowl, Chris and I wondered if we should have brought our ski crampons after-all. Cross-hilling was challenging as there was a small dusting of loose snow atop a bullet-proof layer of ice, but we pressed on.

We reached the ridge in due time and after another 30 more minutes of precarious skinning, we started the bootpack. This is probably my favorite part of the ascent. For some reason skinning feels like torture, but bootpacking on a knife-edge ridge and stair-stepping to the top of the universe somehow feels fun...

The Summit

We reached the summit around 11:30 am and were content with our timing. We could take a moment to enjoy the summit, but still had enough time to descend before temps would become dangerously warm. There is nothing quite like standing atop a mountain like this. It's not huge in the grand scheme of alpine terrain, but Monte Cristo still rises over 11,000' and with views down to the Salt Lake Valley floor, the 7,000' visual drop feels significant.

It's the smallness you feel while standing up there that is compelling. The city seems small, the houses tiny, and the people microscopic. Our problems: nonexistent, yet we so often let them rule our lives. Somehow we all co-exist, not always harmoniously, but seamlessly. We push and pull, lift and drop, hope and dream, and the world turns.

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Slide for Life Skiing?

We settled in about 10' below the summit to shelter ourselves from the wind while we ate lunch. I couldn't eat much, my shoulders were tensing up and my bladder was extremely full. All I could think about was the descent, which was shrouded in a cloud, making visibility a challenge. The variable conditions began to concern me. We would we now be on slide-for-life ice above a cliff that we need to rappel down? My nerves started to fire rapidly, uncontrollably, [somewhat] irrationally, once again. This is where I'm grateful for the man I'm marrying and why we all benefit from a solid life partner.

"Jen, let's just take it one step at a time. If we don't like the conditions we can divert around. We're still a long way above the rappel. Besides, this open bowl is so wind-blown, the couloir is more protected and won't be this bad."

Chris has a way of simplifying things, sometimes too much so, which is what got us in trouble last year, but I tend to overthink things. We allow our dialogue to continue in this push-pull manner until we arrive at a safe and probably very rational decision to ski. Chris went first and found an island of safety below some rocks (not that a slab avalanche was remotely of concern today, but it's good practice to reinforce the right habits). I proceeded to ski into the couloir and nestled behind a large cliff at the start of a separate couloir that would divert around the rappel, should we decide not to complete this route. Once I was safe, I called to Chris. He skied down to the top of the first cliff to set up our initial rappel.

As I sat there, I could see and feel the wet slide that took place just over a year ago in that exact location. We didn't know exactly where we were (fail #1) and got caught out too late in the day (fail #2). I had skied all the way down to the top of the first rappel when I realized we were cliffed-out. Chris was above me, trying to see if we had another option out. He watched as a wet-slide powered through the couloir down the exact path that I had skied only moments before. I was fortunate enough to be able to tuck behind a small rock outcropping while the slide moved through, but I was out of Chris' site. For all he knew, I'd been swept over the cliff...

"Jen!"

Chris' voice snapped me back to the present moment.

"We're good. You can come down to me."

No wet slides today. No confusion. No thoughts of nearly losing someone you love. I carefully skied down to Chris and clipped into the anchor.

Rappelling With Skis On My Back...

There are fixed anchors on this route, which made our setup pretty straightforward. Chris descended first. I watched him ease over the edge and waited until he confirmed that he was secured to the next anchor before I maneuvered the rope into my rappel device. Now it was my turn.

I always loved climbing as a kid. My dad and his colleagues were avid rock climbers and I was fortunate enough to tag along on many of their adventures. A few of my favorites were climbing out of a canoe somewhere in the Gunks, working my way up the [former] Old Man of the Mountain and climbing one of my first multi-pitch climbs in the Las Vegas Red Rocks when I was 12. Rappelling was always one of the most enjoyable aspects for me. A celebration of completing a physically demanding feat, you could spring your way down the wall.

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While rappelling with skis on your back and ski boots on your feet is a bit more awkward than the rappels of my youth, it still felt celebratory and fun, and it's certainly easier than climbing with skis on my back! Once I rejoined Chris at the foot of the cliff, we prepared for the second, larger rappel. This one topped out at about 100' and gave me a few butterflies (the good kind, the kind where you know you're safe, but it's exhilarating anyway).

Halfpipe Couloir!

My feet planted softly on the melting snow and I sank into the upward pull of the rope to get some slack. I unclipped from the rope. We had made it down two pitches and we now had the remaining drainage to ski back to the road.

The couloir fills in in a halfpipe-like manner, making for a playful descent and oddly familiar terrain. Some roller-balls were forming due to the predicted warming temps, but a smile found my face and a full-breath filled my lungs. The mountains are mirrors for what's in our hearts.

This is life. This is what we're here for. Small progressions to move past previous limitations, comparing yourself to no one other than who you were yesterday.

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A few of my favorite deals:

Dare To Lead

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DelicateArch_Arches Yesterday I had the privilege of speaking at the Dare 2 Lead Conference at Murray High School in Salt Lake City.  Dare 2 Lead is a state-wide leadership conference serving Utah's High School students aimed toward empowering students to become a force for good in their schools and in the world. Each High School nominated 2 students to attend the conference. Below is my speech minus the part where I introduce myself.  If you'd like to know more about me, visit the "about" page above.

Everything we set out to do in life comes from either seeking happiness: a sense of accomplishment, achievement or joy; or because we want to avoid what we fear: disappoint, pain, and struggle.  Ironically, setting out to do what makes us happy, setting goals and dreaming big often brings with it the potential risk of bringing on what we fear (heartbreak and sadness), but we can’t let that stop us.  I suppose that my mission in following my dream is to share with others that if it’s easy, it’s probably not worth it.  There is so much to be gained in the struggle. So here is my advice to you. 

#1: Follow Your Heart

Society doesn’t really want us to do the things we love; it wants us to do and seek the things it tells us we should love.  Society wants us to be driven by material things—wealth, fame, fancy cars, college degrees—but ultimately what will benefit the world the most is following your heart.  There is a quote from Howard Thurman that says, “Ask what makes you come alive and go do it, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”  When I am following my heart, I am at my happiest and when I’m at my happiest, doors seem to open all around me.  I smile more, I say hello to strangers beside me on the airplane, I’m willing to share, and suddenly I’ve got a job offer or at the very least a new friend.

Following your heart also allows you to be internally motivated, not externally motivated to achieve.  What you are pursuing is sought for the love and joy that you have for it, not for what you are trying to attain at the end of the road. When you are internally motivated to achieve, you will keep yourself going, you will be able to push through circumstances that are less than ideal, you will be able to look past short term setbacks and stay focused on your end goal.

When I first set out to ski, it was all about the fun and love that I had for the sport. As I began getting my first taste of success and the benefits that success brought, I began to be motivated by external factors.  I needed to ski to keep sponsors happy, I had to beat my opponents, and I had to prove that I was the best (not just the best that I could be). This sport that I was once passionate about became a job and as a consequence, my results began to suffer.  Interestingly, that was around the time that I had to deal with the hardest news of my life, that my father had a rare and progressive form of Leukemia, a year later, I tore my ACL, meniscus, cartilage, and posterolateral corner of my right knee, and just after that, a friend and fellow competitor crashed in the halfpipe and passed away from injuries sustained. To continue skiing was only worth it if I still loved it.  In the last 3 years of my competitive career I have had some of the best days on the hill despite not having landed on a podium since 2011, a feat that at one time was almost guaranteed.

#2: It Is Rare To Find Success Without Failure

"Failure" has a really a bad rap, but failure has been my biggest ally.  First of all, it takes many "failures" to be successful in the end- it is a natural and necessary part of the process in any pursuit, to fail along the way. When I first started skiing competitively things didn’t go so well… my first mogul competition I fell 4 times in one run! I remember feeling so embarrassed that I wanted to crawl into a hole.  There are so many parallels to my journey as a young girl just entering this sport to my journey now as an accomplished pro.  Setting aside the ego, ignoring feelings of embarrassment and shame, feelings of not fitting in or being understood, feelings of doubt—these are all issues that I continue to manage, just with a greater awareness now, it is a conscious decision everyday to press on despite setbacks.

My first 2 years competing at X-Games I finished 2nd to last, but every year I showed up with more vigor, more fire and more motivation. I didn’t allow my doubts and fears to stand in the way of accomplishing my goal.  I knew that one failure didn’t mean that I would continue to fail forever; it was just an indicator of where there was room for my skiing to improve.  I didn’t let my failure define me.  Failure brings with it great opportunity for growth and learning if we are willing to endure the lessons it offers. My 6th year competing at X-Games, I finally won Gold, despite having a cold, being 10 months out of a major knee surgery and being beat in qualifiers by a young up and comer.  I knew it wasn’t over until all 3 finals runs had been skied.  Don’t let that glimpse of failure, that threat to your pride and ego, take you away from what you are trying to accomplish, and even more than that, don’t let it push you away from what is in your heart.  Your failures, nor your successes, define you.

# 3: Happiness Is A Decision

Things may not turn out the way that we expect, but that doesn’t need to control our happiness.  As much as I want to encourage each and every one of you to dream big, to not place limitations on your potential, our value does not lie solely in what we are able to accomplish.  In fact, the results and outcome of our goals are often out of our control due to external factors.  We can only do our best on any given day with the tools that we currently have. What matters is how we handle ourselves when things don’t go our way.

Of all of things that I have achieved in my career, one of my proudest moments was this past winter. In December, at our first Olympic Qualifying event, I landed a trick and tore my ACL, meniscus and cartilage in my left knee.  I wasn’t the only athlete to be taken out this way this winter—it is a risk in our job and one that the majority of us accepts and considers worth taking for the potential reward. There were so many reasons for me to be devastated this winter, to be bitter and jealous of my younger teammates who would ultimately qualify for the Olympics and represent our nation in the event that I advocated for so many years to be a part of the Games. But I took a step back and said, “I don’t want to be sad, I choose to be happy.”  As much as there were valid reasons to be sad in missing out on what I was certain would have been a part of my future (becoming and Olympian), there were so many more reasons to feel happy.  First of all, I confirmed that I wasn’t insane to think that halfpipe would someday be a part of the Olympics and it made for an excellent show.  Second of all, I was pretty darn close to becoming an Olympian, which is more than a lot of people will ever be able to say and I am proud to have come so far.  And finally, dozens of my friends became Olympians this year and I got to cheer them on and celebrate in their accomplishments.

There was nothing more that I could have done in my quest.  I couldn’t control the fact that I got injured and some day, you might have a negative experience that stops you just short of your dream. What matters, and where our true value lies is not so much in what we do, but in how we do things. Win humbly, lose graciously, don’t forget where you came from, be grateful for what you have and what you have accomplished and always respect those around you, especially your competitors- they are more like you than you know. Choose happiness.

#4: The Only Moment That Matters Is The One You Are Currently In

I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted stressing about things out of my control. We cause ourselves undue stress and worry over things that have happened in the past and future events that haven’t even happened yet! In reality, the only moment that we can experience is the moment we are currently living in.  We can’t change the past, we just have to accept it and do our best to learn from it, not be paralyzed by it.  Coming back from injuries is one of the hardest aspects of my job because I have to set aside the fear that I have from past events and convince myself that things can be different in the future.  The way that I do that is by staying largely focused on the present moment, reminding myself that I possess the skills to do what I am setting out to do.  There is a great quote that says, “if you have a problem and there is a solution, then there is no need to worry.  If you have a problem and there is no solution, then there is no need to worry.” We can only deal with a situation when we are in it presently.  When there is nothing you can do about a problem or challenge, we are best served by accepting it and making the most of what the present moment has to offer.  That’s not to say you should run through life without making plans or setting goals, but do so with flexibility, so that you are able to enjoy the moment you are in.  Don't dream so big that you forget what is right in front you.

#5: Letting Go Is Different Than Giving Up

The path that I had outlined for myself, the story that I had scripted for my future, changed dramatically this winter when I injured my knee.  But because I was willing to let go of what was supposed to be, I was able to take in the experiences for what they were, and they ended up being very fulfilling.  Throughout my career when I would have bad contest days, or a trick was frustrating me, or I wasn’t feeling respected by my sponsors, my dad would always tell me to “let it go.” I would always respond with “I don’t want to let it go! I’m not a quitter! I need to prove that I can do it!”  It seemed that there was always more to give.  But when is enough, enough?  “Letting go” is in fact the hardest and scariest thing to do because it feels so similar to “giving up,” but letting go, is different than giving up.  For so long we feel that we are driving our dreams, but sometimes that dream begins to drive us.  We are no longer in the driver’s seat, because our dream has taken control of the wheel.  Realizing this has been liberating and simultaneously terrifying.  I am now at a juncture in my career, a transition year, like many of you find yourselves today, where I am asking “what next?”

All I have known for the last decade of my life is what it means to be a professional skier. My identity and purpose has been wrapped up in skiing much as your identity has been tied to being a student, an athlete, an artist, musician, etc.  All of these pieces will remain a part of us, but if we aren’t willing to let go of our former identities because we feel we are “quitting” or “giving up” on what we were “supposed” to do or be, we are denying ourselves ultimate happiness.  Remember the first tip that I gave you all—“follow your heart”—sometimes what is in your heart changes but we are so entrenched in our current path that we don’t notice until our unhappiness nags hard enough that we take a deep look inside.

“The death of a dream can in fact serve as the vehicle that endows it with new form, with reinvigorated substance, a fresh flow of ideas, and splendidly revitalized color.  In short, the power of a certain kind of dream is such that death need not indicate finality at all but rather signify a metaphysical and metaphorical leap forward.”  Aberjhani

So, take a look inside, where is your heart guiding you now?

 

Each Step Must Be Itself A Goal

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"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives." Henry David Thoreau It has been over a decade since I set out to become an Olympian in the sport of halfpipe skiing. When I began there were only a handful of contests a year, and only a handful of competitors.  There were no Olympic Games for us, just the idea of them.  Many of us take on goals that initially seem insurmountable.  Some of us achieve them, others fall short; but reaching a goal is not the entire purpose of having a goal.  Besides loving skiing, the concept that has propelled me to continue over the years is the process of self-reflection & growth that comes with the journey and the notion of self-actualization.  It is for these reasons that I have been able to come back from several knee surgeries, dislocated shoulders, broken eye sockets, wrists, elbows, and ribs; that is why I am continuing to fight through my current limitations with my knee, to pursue my goal of becoming one of the first Olympians in the sport of halfpipe skiing.

For some time, I got caught up in the winning- the piece of the pie that seems to illustrate one's success.  It was in this time that my experiences had very little to teach me.  Sure, I was acquiring feedback that confirmed that what I was doing was good- more sponsors, awards, and attention, but it only made me temporarily happy, until of course, there was even more of that, which there not always is.  We enter this world with nothing and we are going to leave this world with nothing- material possessions, wealth, fame, and success will all be left behind. So why get caught up in trying to attain such things?  Why allow those concepts to determine our worth?  If we are too focused on the finish line we won't see the speed bumps and pot holes, twists and turns, that may set us off track.  And if we only see them as obstacles in our way, challenges to merely 'get through' because we have to in order to reach our goal, we will likely burn out before we ever cross that finish line.

As I sit here writing this, I am sidelined from my sport once again because of a fractured tibial plateau.  In the year before our sports' Olympic debut, returning from a major knee surgery in 2012, I have yet another obstacle in my way.  But instead of getting frustrated this time, I am loving it.  I have embraced this opportunity for what it is- a chance to be home, sleeping in my bed, going to my gym, eating home-cooked meals, focusing on health and healing.  It is not often in the life of a professional athlete, that we really get to just sit back and enjoy our lives, there is always another goal to be attained, or record to be broken.  But now I have realized that each step is a goal in itself, regardless of what that step may be.  These steps are no longer just inching me closer to my ultimate goal, these steps make up my life.

This is the same for everyone, regardless of what it is he or she is trying to achieve.  For me it has been rehabilitation and time in the gym, for my graduate school sister, it is writing papers and creating presentations, for the aspiring musician it is teaching music not just performing music, and for the photographer, shooting weddings not just landscapes.  But learning to LOVE these other aspects of our journey that allow us to work toward our goals will make all the difference in the world.  Putting these steps into the category of a "goal" themselves is a good start in making each step more fulfilling.

So, get out there. Chase your dreams!  But don't forget to enjoy yourself along the way.